Editor's note | May 20, 2016: Since this article first published, activists have continued to go to Yulin to protest its annual dog meat festival and rescue dogs. A recent HSI investigation revealed that about 300 dogs are killed each day in the Yulin to supply the city's restaurants. During the June festival, that number jumps. But HSI consultant Peter Li says that this year, following the closure of slaughterhouses and a big dog meat market, the festival should be diminished. "Every year it becomes smaller," he says. "And it is going to die—maybe in five years, maybe 10 years."
It’s early, the sky still gray with dawn, when the Chinese animal activists find the market where dogs are sold for slaughter. Down a dirt road, amidst a tangle of people and motorbikes loaded with cages, doomed animals are barking, yelping and crying a week before the city of Yulin’s dog meat festival.
Sensitive to criticism, the government of this city in southern China has been stopping trucks carrying dogs from entering the municipality in advance of the June 21 event. But the dog meat traders have figured out a way around that rule: Squat, rusty cages crammed full of dogs are being ferried by motorbike to this market off a main highway leading into Yulin. Accompanied by a TV journalist carrying a camera, activists from Guangzhou, Beijing, Xi’an and California’s Silicon Valley are trying to enter the market. They want to draw national attention to the situation. The manager blocks their way, planting herself in the middle of the narrow road.
“We don’t sell dogs to eat, only as pets,” she says.
Behind her, caged animals—some skinny and missing fur, some who appear healthy but are afflicted with a look of empty resignation—are being treated like edible flesh. Men who mill around the market carry big sticks and long-handled tongs, sort of like giant pliers, with which they can grab dogs by the neck and pull them, helpless, upward and out of the cages for buyers. When the men need to move dogs from one cage to another, they prod them again and again with the sticks and the tongs, indifferent to their cries of pain. The activists ask again to be allowed into the market.
Frustrated, the manager starts yelling. “Enough!” she says, attempting to wave them off. “Enough!” But they don’t budge. Traffic whizzes by on the highway. A few more motorbikes buzz up and then coast down the road toward the market with their cargos of dogs. The manager continues shouting, wearily pouring her energy into the performance. “If you guys are here, I cannot guarantee your safety! People could get mad! They could get physical!” Unswayed, the activists offer her money for two dogs.
The manager goes away and comes back with a bag holding two puppies. The dogs are crying as though they’ve been hurt and expect to be hurt again. She asks $100 for the pair—more than twice the going rate. Silicon Valley activist Andrea Gung of the Duo Duo Animal Welfare Project pays, and the activists gain instant credibility. They are allowed to enter the bustle of the market.
Traders smile and swagger, indifferent to the fear that rolls off the animals. The dogs look through cage bars with pleading eyes, until a person approaches too close. Then they growl—not as though they believe they can fight their way free, merely as a last declaration that they are still alive. Earlier that morning, Peter Li, a consultant with Humane Society International, had slipped into the market with an undercover newspaper reporter and rescued another pair of puppies: Four dogs saved. Scores remain. In the market, Beijing activist Xu Yufeng makes a sound of helpless disgust, as a motorbike loaded with dogs pulls away, carrying them to the dinner table.
But the images collected by the activists and journalists will go out across China, drawing attention to the upcoming festival and the effort to stop it. Before the summer is over, there will be a heightened awareness of the long-distance commercial dog meat trade that feeds festivals like Yulin’s and certain restaurants in China’s south and northeast. And, because of that, there will be an unprecedented surge to halt the grim transport trucks carrying stacks of cages filled with dogs. Thousands of dogs will be rescued by China’s grassroots animal welfare movement, as middle-class pet owners in and around Beijing take to the highways.
For decades, China’s ancient culture of compassion toward animals was eclipsed by ideologies that ignored animal welfare. There were the years under Mao, when sparrows were exterminated as pests and pet dogs branded bourgeois vices. Then there was the rush to get rich, when profit-driven dog meat dealers started stealing pets and poisoning strays. Now, guided by Buddhism and their own hearts, activists are changing the way Chinese regard animals.
Qin Xiaona, 68, president and founder of the Capital Animal Welfare Association, says the country is finally emerging from the effects of the Cultural Revolution, which forced people to turn on each other: “There has been a way of admiring violence. … The idea of harmony—of being kind to others—[has just] started to spread. … It’s a fight between kindness and violence.”
A week before the Yulin festival, Li reminds activists who came to town hoping to cancel the event of this bigger picture. So many dogs are on the verge of slaughter, and the city government says that it lacks the authority to ban the festival. “I am telling them, don’t be discouraged, even though dog eating might not be outlawed. But we have achieved success,” says Li, HSI’s China policy specialist.
The local government, which helped start the Yulin festival to promote tourism and economic development, seems to be doing everything it can to hide the fact that it’s still going on. Responding to calls by Chinese celebrities, plus web and social media campaigns and petitions, including an HSI letter signed by more than 100,000 people worldwide, authorities banned dog trucks from entering the city, told municipal employees not to eat in dog meat restaurants and prohibited the public slaughter of dogs. Gone are banners that advertise the event and the tourism bureau’s official sponsorship. The government has even forbidden restaurants from displaying the word “dog” to advertise what they offer.
“Crispy XXX Meat Restaurant” reads a sign in Yulin’s center, where the municipal order has been carried out with fidelity. Paper, tape or paint, usually red to match the color of signs, have obliterated the word “dog” from sight, though pictures of dogs and kittens still illustrate what’s being offered by butchers in the city’s Dong Kou market.
Dog meat vendors still preside over tables covered in rows of hairless animals—some browned with blowtorches, others white after being soaked in water to plump up, the occasional body cut open to reveal the pink flesh inside. The sellers taunt activists: “I can cook you a pot of dog meat—it’s good for you! Better than pork or beef! It’s organic!” Their stands aren’t busy, though. Neither are the dog meat restaurants. Cleavers stand idle, driven into wooden chopping blocks. There is no bloody spectacle of dogs killed in front of customers.
Instead, the activists who’ve come to Yulin to stop the festival must search for the slaughterhouses concealed off the city’s main streets. Acting on a tip from neighbors who complain about the noise and stench, Wang Yuan, an activist from the north, leads police between houses to a building where dogs are waiting to be killed. The animals stare through rusty bars at pools of blood, a plastic basin in which dead dogs soak and a machine for removing fur, its teeth choked with hair. At the head of a small crowd of residents, Wang walks triumphantly. But later, looking back at the pictures on her cell phone, she will cry: “They only had water to drink after the long journey. And they were so skinny. … They were trembling.” Citing health code violations, police close the slaughterhouse. Activists bring food and water to dogs still locked in the building and continue to search for what their work has driven underground.
Soon, though, the activists hear the government is searching for the “foreigners” they consider to be behind this protest. Li worries police will come to the hotel. Other than a quick trip to buy tickets for the train out of Yulin, he hardly leaves his room for the next 20 hours. The next morning, he finally hears police have called off the search and is able to check on the rescued puppies, being cared for by a local supporter who doesn’t dare protest herself. Later that day, he leaves the city.
China’s dog meat trade is frequently defended as a tradition people should be free to follow or a dietary choice they should be allowed to make. However, these sentiments ignore the reality of the commercial trade in China that feeds dog meat restaurants and festivals such as Yulin’s. A significant number of the estimated 10 million dogs slaughtered each year do not come from “farms,” as defenders of the trade claim. If they did, the price of dog meat would be much higher because dogs are expensive to raise and require costly veterinary care if they are to survive in large numbers. But dog is one of the cheapest meats sold in the market, costing as little as $5 a pound—about half as much as beef or lamb.
Chinese dog dealers get most of their supply by capturing strays, often by darting them with poison (an overdose of anesthesia), and stealing pets. They gather the dogs at collection centers, then load them onto transports. A significant number of dogs fall ill, die or suffer serious injury in the tight confines of cages during long journeys without food or water, but because the animals cost virtually nothing to acquire and one truck can move so many, dealers still turn a profit. Along the way, dealers neglect government-required vaccinations and rabies prevention quarantines. When they reach their destinations, the dogs, many of whom have lived trusting lives with humans, are clubbed to death in front of each other.
Researcher Guo Peng, an associate professor at Shandong University in the Jinan province, studied the situation around Yulin and found that people in three villages near there traditionally have raised puppies for guard dogs, not meat. Dogs were eaten only in times of famine, or so as not to waste the meat from old or sick animals about to die anyway. Even then, eating them was considered shameful and sad, not something to celebrate. It was forbidden to offer dog meat to the local gods or ancestors. People would take the dogs out of the village to slaughter them and cook them where neighbors couldn’t see. Since 2006, as the commercial dog meat trade grew, guard dogs from these villages began to go missing—presumably stolen. The Yulin festival emerged not from a centuries-old tradition, says Guo, but in the last 14 years as a marketing scheme.
The current ideology of get rich at any cost underlies the dog meat industry. Professor Jiang Jinsong of Tsinghua University in Beijing is a strong proponent of a different set of ethics, one rooted in China’s past. A Buddhist, he spent the days of this year’s Yulin festival chanting with 300 others near Beijing for the dogs who would be killed and for the people who would slaughter them. The killers would suffer bad karma and might well be reborn as dogs, Jiang believes, perhaps even dogs collected for the meat trade. In his eyes, there is no great gulf between people and animals—no separation that could possibly justify treating dogs cruelly.
If sales are any indicator, the activists have won the confrontation. The Xinhua News Agency reports purchases are down 30 percent. Gung finds out later that marketers had to lower the price of dog meat, which usually goes up during the festival, in order to make sales. Seventeen of 65 restaurants have closed, according to Xinhua, and another four have been shut down for health code violations.
More than that, the whole of China is watching. And six weeks later, the spirit that drove the Yulin rescues reemerges on the highways around Beijing. An activist sees a transport truck headed for China’s northeast and follows it. Her social media post attracts hundreds, among them Xu. After a 110-mile chase, they intercept the truck at a rest stop. CAWA contacts the police, who seize the dogs because the driver lacks the proper paperwork. Animal groups send supplies and veterinary help, organizing a massive rescue that expands, with the halting of four other trucks, to 2,400 dogs. The interceptions continue throughout August and September, growing to 17 trucks and 7,000 dogs. VShine comes to help, as does Shan Dai.
“Yulin is a little spark, and the spark started a fire,” says Gung.
Count China’s animal activists, and in this nation of 1.3 billion, they are a negligible number. But look at their hearts—at the compassion and determination—and they become significant. For as many who are activists, there are many more who sympathize, silently, and many others who are now being swayed.
When Gung goes back to Yulin following the festival, she eats with some unexpected companions. One day she has lunch with Buddhists who own a dog meat restaurant in the area where festivalgoers gather. They say they would rather not serve dog—they would never eat it themselves—but customers ask for it. Another night she shares a meal with a dozen dog meat marketers who say they do not sell butchered dogs out of a conviction that it’s right or an appetizing food, but simply to earn an income.
People in China, though, are beginning to look for something more in their lives. And that is where the animal welfare movement draws its energy. It is not about politics. It is not about money. Instead, the movement breaks out and surges forward, powered by smartphone videos, Weibo, WeChat and YouKu posts; by the newly mobile middle class, set free on highways in recently purchased personal cars; by an ever-growing multitude of Chinese volunteer advocacy groups; and by individuals, responding spontaneously to animals in need, driven by that most irrational and unreasonable and unquenchable human quality: Love.